WINDHAM—Kayla Aubin, 5, strained hard to understand her teacher’s directions. That she needed to get something from her cubbyhole was clear, but beyond that the task was a mystery.
So Kayla’s classmate, Jelena Cortes, stepped in. “She wants you to get your book,” Jelena translated.
The teacher was speaking only in Spanish and Kayla had to rely on her Spanish-speaking classmate to translate. Already a goal was being realized: The youngsters were learning to depend on each other for help translating.
It was the fifth day of a new bilingual program at Windham Center School that is designed to make kindergarteners fluent in English and Spanish and is believed to be the first of its kind in the state.
Called “Companeros” — Spanish for “partners” — the program began in the last week of January and is the only one in the state in which native Spanish speakers learn side by side with native English speakers for all lessons.
The program’s aim is to have all the children “socially proficient” in oral skills in both languages by the end of first grade and to start reading in both languages in the second grade, said Jean Romano, director of bilingual education for the district.
The parents will learn Spanish and English together, too, when classes begin for them. Parents will also receive packets of suggestions for projects for them to do with children, Romano said.
The way the kindergarten program works is that on three consecutive days, teacher Miriam Reynoso and her bilingual assistant, Linda Dominiquez, speak only in English for songs, stories, directions and answers to questions. For the next three class days, they speak only in Spanish.
There are 32 pupils enrolled in Companeros — 20 speak Spanish and 12 speak English. Several other English speakers would have enrolled in the program, but there wasn’t room for them, Romano said.
“Our goal is for the children to stay together for five years,” Reynoso said.
The program is designed to move along with them through fourth grade.
“The beauty of this is that there’s no cost to the district. We’re using the resources we already have,” Romano said.
The teacher, for example, has been on the staff for three years and had previously taught in a two-way bilingual program in Worcester, Mass.
The program is unique in Connecticut, although there are 112 similar programs in 72 school districts around the country, Romano said.
Bridgeport and New Haven have bilingual magnet schools in which students are together for a few hours of instruction or for special projects each week and everyone is exposed to a second language. But those programs are different because students are grouped with peers who speak the same language.
Hartford has a program in which English speaking second-graders are mixed with Spanish speakers two or three times a week, according to Adnelly Z. Marichal, coordinator of bilingual programs for Hartford schools.
Romano said she had long wanted to start a two-way bilingual program in Windham, where 33 percent of the students are Hispanic. She got the nod from the board of education when two board members said they had read about similar programs in The New York Times or heard about them from friends in other states.
Romano said she studied standardized test grades of pupils in three other two-way programs in Virginia and Massachusetts and found that by the fifth grade, the bilingual pupils surpassed school, state and national norms in all academic subjects.
True to Romano’s predictions, the youngsters are learning quickly.
“Que es esto?” Reynso asked her pupils while holding up a wood frame window she made herself. “Ventana,” the youngsters called out, using the Spanish word for window.
They learned, too, that they are expected to teach each other and frequently mimic the teacher’s method of announcing the names of objects they handle. During play time, Rhodeliz Rodriquez made herself at home in a play kitchen. Systematically she went about setting the table for a feast.
“Plato,” Rhodeliz said as she put a plate on the table. “Cuchara,” she said, holding a spoon aloft and then placing it beside the plato. And finally, “pollo,” she announced as she plunked a plastic fried chicken thigh on the plate.